What Are Pakistani College Students All About?

By Howard Schweber

After spending a summer teaching political theory to Pakistani college students, I can confidently make two assertions:  they are just like all the other college students I have known, and they are not at all like the other college students I have known.  Beyond that, I found puzzles and mysteries.

My first impression of Pakistani students was that they are … well, just college students.  How utterly, disappointingly unexotic.  Grade-conscious careerists, canny manipulators of the system, highly competitive … future engineers and finance majors.

But there are some differences, after all.  That word “elite” comes into play, here. In the U.S., no college student would describe him or herself as “elite” – that word is primarily reserved for use as a political insult.  Americans, notoriously, valorize the idea of belonging to “the middle class,” sometimes to a ludicrous degree.  Pakistani students have no such compunctions, and are quite pleased to describe themselves and their family backgrounds by saying “we are the elites” and other words to that effect.  Partly this tendency reflects an inherited colonialist culture, partly it reflects the reality of a deep economic divisions reflected in the ubiquitous servant culture that every American I spoke with privately described as jarring.  American college students at top schools tend to have a sense of entitlement … but nothing that compares with the “elite” classes of Pakistani society.

Not all LUMS students come from backgrounds of privilege, however.  In my small, unscientific sample of about 40 students whom I met (out of 65 enrolled in my two courses), I encountered 10 or so who come from worlds very different from that of Lahore’s upper class.  These students tended to approach me quietly and privately to describe their backgrounds; students from small villages, not only in the Punjab but also from the areas around Karachi and Peshawar, the student who confided that he had grown up on streets similar to the ones we were walking through in the area around Lahore’s Walled City, the student (pointed out to me) who comes from FATA and cannot go home.

And there is yet another dissonant strain that clashes with the “elite” culture of graduates of Aitchison School, convent schools, and the like.  This different voice appears in the form of deeply religious students, referred to on my particular campus by faculty and fellow students alike as “the mullahs.” At first I thought I understood the significance of their presence on campus, but by the time I left I had concluded that the relationship between these religiously observant students, their fellows, and the administration is the great unsolved mystery that I take away from my visit.  It may be the great unsolved mystery of Pakistan, in fact, but I’ll come back to that.

Looking more closely at the students I met and taught reveals more mysteries.  Some had serious problems with English, particularly in their writing, but most were extremely well prepared as far as language skills are concerned.  It is when we look beyond language skills that puzzles begin to appear.

Here’s an example:  on the first examination that I administered I included a question that asked students to “compare and contrast” two texts.  I was not particularly proud of the question, since for American students this is considered the most banal, overused, pedantic imaginable form of exam problem, the sort of question they have been encountering since the fourth grade.  I was therefore nonplussed when several students asked what I meant by “comparing” different texts.  “We have never been asked a question like this,” said one, and a dozen others in the room expressed their agreement. I have often had students request extensions on assignments, but LUMS was the first place in which I encountered a request for an extension signed by five students – who, it turned out, were among the better students in the class! –  justified by the statement that “we have never been asked to write something like this before.”

In response to these inquiries, I tried to explain the idea of making comparisons in terms of taxonomy – you identify the salient characteristics and use them to classify objects in terms of their differences (“zebras have stripes, horses don’t.”)  Now apply the same idea to, say, theories of history.  “This writer views social arrangements as expressions of economic organization, this writer understands social arrangements as the performance of ideological claims … and here’s the explanation that makes more sense in modern Pakistan.”  I wasn’t necessarily expecting brilliant insights, but it was startling to realize that the question was, itself, startling.

That was only the beginning of a slowly dawning realization that LUMS students are palpably uncomfortable with abstract concepts and what people in Education Schools call “critical thinking skills.”  When I raised this point to faculty and alumni, every one without exception acknowledged the problem, and pointed to the system of secondary education as the culprit.  Undoubtedly the point is correct, but I think there is a deeper observation to be made here.  In addition to being uncomfortable with abstract concepts, these students and their families seem to be uncomfortable with the idea of knowledge that is not justified by an immediate practical application.  That discomfort extends to a reluctance to embrace basic scientific research as well as the humanities.  I heard from students who wanted to study physics but whose parents insisted that they become engineers, students who wanted to become historians but whose parents did not see the point to being an historian.  The same attitudes exist in other places, to be sure, but among LUMS students it seemed to be universal.  There is a classic saying about immigrants to America:  “the first generation are factory workers so the second generation can be lawyers so the third generation can be artists.”  I mentioned that saying to a student and he found it deeply puzzling.

Part of the reason for the discomfort with abstraction may have to do with a curiously limited range of background knowledge.  My students – many of whom, again, had graduated from the finest schools – knew almost literally nothing of non-Pakistani history and culture.  The reason is not that Pakistan is culturally isolated – far from it.  At one point I found myself confronted by a room full of students who had an exhaustive knowledge of the movies that were Oscar candidates last year but among whom the vast majority had never heard of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.  In general, students had no idea – not even a wrong idea! – about the significance of the French Revolution or World War I, the history of nationalism and empires, the contents of the Book of Genesis, the Scientific Revolution or the Renaissance.  Again, when I pressed students, faculty members, and alumni, the answer was always the same: the fault lies with the secondary school curriculum, and particularly the fact that during Zia’s rule secondary school curricula were shifted to emphasize Pakistan studies and Islam at the expense of everything else.  Again, that can only be a very partial explanation.  But it is worth noting that this lack of cultural literacy helps feed the culture of conspiracy theories for which Pakistan is justly famous.

But what happens once these students get to college?  I saw and heard about fine courses in Shakespeare and Islamic Jurisprudence, but when it comes to the social sciences it appears that the students who learn anything about these subjects at all (that is, those who choose to take courses outside of Accounting and Finance) are fed a steady diet of snippets of readings and excerpts from trendy current theories.  Many students could and were eager to could talk fluently about Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, and (rather weirdly) Nazi Germany, but Locke and Rousseau, Machiavelli and Madison, Cromwell and Marx were all equally unknown territory. Undoubtedly, at this point I will be accused of Western ethnocentrism; how many American college students know the names of the first four Moghul Emperors?  It’s a fair point, to be sure.  But it’s a big world out there, and a dangerous place at home.  Colleges don’t just train engineers, they train citizens and future leaders.  Pakistan might do well to train some future leaders in the history and the philosophies that have shaped the world around them.

The point is not that the instructors at these colleges are bad teachers, far from it; the instructors I met were qualified, dedicated teachers.  The point is that establishing the historical and philosophical context out of which modern ways of thinking emerge does not seem to be part of the curriculum.  Nor, for that matter, does reading whole books seem to be an expected element of the college experience.  I had a student in my office who complained, with no apparent sense of irony, that I had asked a question on a take-home exam to which he was unable to find an answer on Wikipedia.  (To repeat an earlier observation, Pakistani college students seem to be almost entirely unencumbered by any sense of irony.  I find this incomprehensible, given the Dadaist absurdity of much of Pakistani politics.)

Which brings me back to the “mullahs.”  Over and over I was warned, by faculty members and students alike, to beware of these students.  When I mentioned some of the texts that I was teaching, a senior colleague was first horrified, then said “well, you are probably all right because it is the summer.”  All of this fed into a rather well settled narrative of universities as bastions of secular knowledge (and a fair amount of partying in the men’s dorm, I hear), besieged by the forces of religious extremism.

But then I got to know a few students who are, themselves, religiously observant.  They tell a different story.  Their claim is that the so-called “mullahs” are two groups of students.  One group, led by an instructor, follow a Sufi order called Naqshbandi, while the other is associated with “Tableeghi Jamaat.”  Neither group, according to these students, has any interest in confrontation.  The same students insist that there have never been any incidents of religious students harassing secular students or faculty or disrupting classes, and that the college Disciplinary Committee would make short work of any student who tried to do so.  By contrast, the same students complain of a pervasive anti-religious bias.  In an e-mail, a student wrote:  “I remember that in one particular class a student with beard came late to class, which is a normal practice, and instructor said to him sarcastically, ‘Oh go back and offer prayer etc. because these things (courses) are not important…’”

So there are two narratives at work here.  Which one is right, is one more right than the other, are both simultaneously operative?  Which narrative captures more of the experience at the University of Punjab, which captures more of what goes on at LUMS?  I have no idea – I only know that no one disrupted my classes or threatened me, but that many people seemed to feel compelled to call my attention to the possibility of such events.

The more I think about it, this last mystery about Pakistan’s universities is a mystery about Pakistan.  I have no clear idea about the relationships among different approaches to Islam and secularism among Pakistan’s elites.  Traditionally, Pakistanis have been “the kind of Muslims who go to shrines,” but the nation has a death penalty for blasphemy and just a few months ago “Death to Qadianis” banners used to festoon the boulevards of Lahore.  And one Pakistani student, in front of other students, told me “as a good Muslim I would never say a’salaam back if an Ahmedi said a’salaam to me.”  The other students said nothing, in a class devoted to examining theories of democracy and multiculturalism.  As I walked around the campus, I observed the students lounging on the stairs, men and women together, but then a sociologist tells me that among the very people I am observing more than 85% will enter arranged marriages and that more than 90% of those marriages do not permit the wife to file for divorce.

So maybe these aren’t “just college students” after all.  But what are they, this next generation of the nation’s elite?  Individually I can tell you that they are bright, thoughtful, witty, principled, socially and intellectually attractive young adults with widely varying worldviews, limited only by a lack of education and culturally imposed limitations, especially the women.  But as a group?  If you ask me “what are Pakistani college students all about?” I can only answer that I find it a mystery.

This article appeared first in The Friday Times, Lahore, and is being reproduced here with permission of the author. Howard Schweber is an Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison where he teaches political theory and constitutional law. He taught this summer at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).

A follow-up to this post is now available: LUMS and Learning: Reflections on a Discussion.

Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. In 2008 he taught a three-week course to a co-ed class at the International Islamic University in Islamabad. His observations of his experience provide another data point for consideration in this discussion.

A more general discussion of issues related to education in Pakistan is available here and a summary is available here.

For an assessment of liberal arts education at one of India’s most well-known institutions, St. Stephens College, see here.

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108 Comments
  • Umbrella
    Posted at 04:29h, 16 September Reply

    Excellent article. Colleges don’t just train engineers, they train citizens and future leaders.” This is the problem in Pakistan. They aren’t trained to feel social responsibility. If you grow up rich in Pakistan you are around a homogenous set of people who are just like you and they develop tunnel vision and lack of perspective in terms of diversity. I found Pakistani elites the hardest to engage with as compared to other elites but because they were shy and closed off. The Indians were much more affable. I am glad you picked up the lack of comparing and contrasting skills as that was hard for them because in the west that is the first thing you do and debate on it openly. This shows the lack of critical analysis skills. This is why the educational system in Pakistan is not great. I am sure they are great at math but the social sciences sounds poor.
    I am glad you noticed the outright mistreatment of other people and racism. They have been mentally trained to behave this way. To me some are a mystery as well. I found them narrow minded but innocently because they are products of their environments. They dehumanize the poor, the minorities and women. It seemed like a lot of identity issues and post colonial baggage.

  • Umbrella
    Posted at 04:50h, 16 September Reply

    I found this to be true on arranged marriage for Pakistanis youth can be strict but that is why they are in university to get a good match. But happens in Indian culture too, when I met Pakistani Muslim female friends at work events some opened up about getting married too young at 19 and sounded depressed by telling me because I was a single professional female and that seemed appealing. Pakistan is a wild nation because their are secret societies such as the elites, gay population who are so removed from real Pakistan.

  • Umbrella
    Posted at 05:34h, 16 September Reply

    True but I wouldn’t think that is big deal. I would question Their knowledge of their own history. Some Pakistanis do not know about Indian history or the events. I would think they would know it because per the Dean of Lums they travel outside a lot and have goals to go to the west but not all can go and some stay to work in Pakistan. There is only a % that gets selected per their interviews. They should all be required to do a day of social work to graduate …

  • Mira
    Posted at 20:23h, 16 September Reply

    I found article to be accurate in terms of the class gap and elitism attitudes in Pakistan. They cannot relate to “Real Pakistan” which is middle and lower classes. The issues of not being able to compare and contrast is accurate because critical thinking freedom of thought isn’t taught in schools. It’s learned via the open press and media in Pakistan but even those are just posts and diaries of events that occurred vs. articulated perspective of what is occurring in that nation. Some of these kids have difficulty adjusting into the Western world and go back to Pakistan because its a class issue is a problem. Elite Indians have that issue as well. Education and critical thinking and perspective are an extremely important aspect of building a well rounded curriculum and especially if a percentage of them go abroad. There is blanket racism/classism in Pakistan and its great you got to see it first hand in Pakistan.

    This makes one appreciate their freedoms tend fold.

    • Mira
      Posted at 03:58h, 17 September

      I did not understand this statement. What did you mean by uncumbered irony? College kids all over the world can be this way…

      “To repeat an earlier observation, Pakistani college students seem to be almost entirely unencumbered by any sense of irony.

  • Mira
    Posted at 16:46h, 17 September Reply

    This is a very logically based response and very well stated. I totally agree and when stated to other Pakistani leaders they fall back to post colonial solutions and compare India’s problems to Pakistan’s problems. The world is not worried about India succeeding but the world is concerned about Pakistan’s education system because of its negative ripple effects across the globe. The phase on defining the best models of education are still undefined and they cannot come to consensus about the model of education that fits each province which is a failure. It seems they are concerned about scalability but if they cannot create one custom built educational model internally how do they expect to create 30,000 schools? They have to try to pilot a few and then scale. The mindset in Pakistan leadership is too filled with setbacks and post colonial baggage.

    • Mira
      Posted at 17:00h, 17 September

      Also, if the white American missionaries can create successful education systems in foreign lands in Punjab pre-partition in 1800s without knowing a drop of the language or culture and they can create the curriculums and financing and work with local govt to launch it and fund it, then why can’t Pakistanis create their own educational systems at various levels,in Pakistan. The issue is mindset in Pakistan is not industrious and bogged down with excuses.

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